Weeknight Cooking

Curried Lentils with Coconut Milk That Make "Something from Nothing"

September 29, 2016

Julia Turshen describes dried spices as “sleeping in the cupboard,” needing a hit of hot oil to "wake up” and “make themselves known.” In her curried lentil dish from Small Victories, the spices—a mix of cumin seed, coriander, and turmeric—rouse from their slumber for a full 10 minutes, entering the pan in step one right along with the minced garlic, shallot, and ginger.

Many recipes call for “blooming” spices in oil, but few for quite this long. In a chili, braise, or other slow-cooked dish, a one- to two-minute blooming period may be fine. But in this dish, which comes together in 30 minutes, a longer period allows the spices to infuse the oil and meld into the aromatics before the liquids (a mix of equal parts coconut milk and water) enter the equation. In the end, the lentils taste vibrant, earthy, and deeply curried, with a texture resembling a thick soup or dal, the coconut milk lending body and a slight richness.

This simple method—the slow warming of spices plus a short simmer in liquid—could be used with any number of quick-cooking grains such as quinoa, bulgur, pearled farro, or wheat berries, as well as with cooked chickpeas or beans to create a comforting, satisfying stew-like dish. (Note: The amount of liquid will vary depending on the grain or legume being used.)

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Make this dish when the cupboards feel bare—when you need to create, as Julia says, “something from nothing.” Its virtues could be summarized as healthful, cheap, and easy, but there are others worth highlighting:

  • Many curries or curry-like dishes call for a daunting number of ingredients, but in this one, the seasonings are minimal: a few dried spices (coriander, turmeric, and cumin seeds) and a few aromatics (ginger, garlic, shallot or onion).
  • Julia, expert recipe writer that she is, doesn’t simply say, “Salt to taste.” She specifies 2 teaspoons—so helpful!—then suggests seasoning to taste before serving. This was spot on.
Left, all of the components—and right, there they are after 10 minutes in the pot. Photo by Alexandra Stafford
  • After you dump the can of coconut milk into the pot, you use the empty can to measure an equal amount of water. How nice not to have to reach for another measure?
  • Julia offers two simple spin-offs, both of which sound appealing:

For a vegetable or chicken curry, substitute a pound of chopped vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, etc.) or cubed chicken for the lentils, then follow the recipe the same.

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Top Comment:
“I did double the spices, added lots of sliced carrots & chicken. Everyone in the loved liked it. I even ate it cold every time I opened the fridge. I can't wait to make it again. ”
— Andi B.

For a Thai-style curry, omit the cumin and add a minced chile along with the garlic and ginger. Add cilantro stems along with the coconut milk (but discard them before serving) and finish the dish with a splash of fish sauce. Serve with lime, cilantro leaves, and Sriracha.

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

Tell us what you think of when you think of "curry" in the comments below.

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I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


Korrina T. January 15, 2017
This is so good I made it twice in one week. The second time I made it, we still had leftovers of the first batch in the fridge. We used french lentils both times so it took a little bit longer to cook. We added roasted carrots and cauliflower once the lentils were done. Seriously. Amazing and easy good food.
Author Comment
Alexandra S. January 16, 2017
So happy to hear this! The veg on the side sounds perfect.
Zara G. January 14, 2017
This was fantastic. I ate it all week for lunch with a dollop of yogurt. I will definitely be making it again. (....and again and again)
Author Comment
Alexandra S. January 15, 2017
Yay! So happy to hear this.
deanna1001 January 9, 2017
Hi A -

The picture looks like it's made with french lentils, but the recipe specifies red. I find they are quite different - the red ones break down very fast while the french ones hold shape and tooth even with longer cooking. Thoughts? (I'm definitely making this...)
Author Comment
Alexandra S. January 9, 2017
Hi Dee! Yes, you are absolutely correct. There is one note on the actual recipe page (https://food52.com/recipes/63393-curried-lentils-with-coconut-milk) about using a mix of lentils for exactly the reason you note here. I like how the French lentils hold their shape while the red lentils break down. If you use all red, the finished dish will look much different than the one here. It's delicious both ways, but if you don't like the texture of all mush, then I recommend using all French or a mix of French and red (or other). Happy New Year!
Jenny January 6, 2017
If wanting to make this with chicken and/or veggies (without lentils), when do you add them? Do you cook them first?
Author Comment
Alexandra S. January 6, 2017
Hi Jenny,

What kind of veggies and what kind of chicken? Let me know, and then I can advise. Thanks!
Jenny January 7, 2017
Chicken -- raw or cooked / thighs or breast and potatoes and/or cauliflower -- I want to make it Whole30 compliant.
Author Comment
Alexandra S. January 7, 2017
Hi Jenny! OK, I would add the cauliflower and uncooked chicken at step 2, when you would add the lentils if you were using them. If you are using cooked chicken, I would add it at the end, like with 5 or 10 minutes to go. If you find the potatoes/cauliflower are not cooked through but the liquid is looking low, just keep adding water as needed. Good luck!
Kit S. January 6, 2017
I added sliced carrots and chopped spinach to the lentils for some extra veggies/vitamins and it was delicious. I'll try cauliflower next tie
Author Comment
Alexandra S. January 6, 2017
Wonderful to hear this!
Andi B. January 5, 2017
This is one of my very favorite recipes! Made this on New Year's Eve. I did double the spices, added lots of sliced carrots & chicken. Everyone in the loved liked it. I even ate it cold every time I opened the fridge. I can't wait to make it again.
Andi B. January 5, 2017
Oops! Everyone in the family loved it!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. January 5, 2017
So happy to hear this!! Happy New Year!
Ben M. September 29, 2016
For the Thai style I would chop or pound the cilantro stems instead of throwing them out. I do that for homemade Thai curries and it adds a wonderful flavor.
Author Comment
Alexandra S. September 29, 2016
Nice idea! That makes sense.
Emily M. September 29, 2016
This recipe looks great! Except my boyfriend is not a fan of lentils - how would the liquid change if I were to use cooked chickpeas instead?
Author Comment
Alexandra S. September 29, 2016
I would reduce the liquid by half: try 1/2 a can of coconut milk (be sure to whisk it up in a separate bowl first) and an equal amount of water. You probably could use 2 cans of chickpeas (15 oz each) or 1 — I would drain them first. Simmer it for 15 minutes or so, and add more liquid as needed. Let me know how it goes! I'm dying to try this with chickpeas, white beans, and cauliflower (not all at once).
Emily M. October 1, 2016
Thanks for the advice!
Bunny P. May 12, 2017
You can also use 2 cans of drained & rinsed kidney beans. I also added 1 cup of leftover cooked corn (frozen white corn).
My family loved it over white rice.
mcs3000 September 29, 2016
I love Julia's cookbook!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. September 29, 2016
Me, too! It's amazing, right?